The Perfect Storm


September golf in Chicago. The beginning of the end of golfing season. Depressing, really. It's sad when it's starting getting dark around 7:00. It seems like just a month ago I could get a full 18 in after you're lucky to get in nine. The number of potential rounds to get in before the snow hits is down to a precious few...and the weather is so unpredictable, you're not 100% sure whether they'll even be another round before 2007.

Fall golf is really a different brand of golf. Courses get shaggy. Leaves start to fall. Drives don't travel quite as far. Your golf game gets rusty. You lose the motivation and the ability to grind it out. Basically, you're just looking to end your season on a good note...a great round or even just a memorable hole. Over the last 10 years, I've ended three seasons with a round that included an eagle, including my hole-in-one last year, and a near double-eagle on the 16th hole on one of the courses at Cog Hill on a cold October day in ‘97, when I hit a blind 2nd shot on a par 5 to within a foot. After the tap in, I figured there was nothing left to accomplish for the season and just headed in. Now that's ending the season on a high note.

My 72 at the Irish course up in Kohler was only three weeks ago, but it seems like three months. I spent the week of Labor Day in Hilton Head on vacation with the family and managed to get three rounds in. Despite entering the trip playing some of the best golf of my life, Hilton Head managed to do exactly what it always does -- bring me down a couple notches on the pegboard. Seriously...I've been to Hilton Head five times, and I'm 0-for-5 on having any kind of success there. I don't know if it's the tight, resort-style courses, the bermuda rough or the slow and grainy bermuda greens, but I just can't seem to play well down there. My Hilton Head scores: 82-77-84, and only 2 total birdies. This is coming off the heels of 75-76-75-76-77-72-78.

So upon returning from Hilton Head, the clubs didn't go straight back into the trunk of my car, where they've held permanent residence since at least April. But they didn't go inside to hibernate for the winter either. Instead, they were held in limbo in the garage...standing there just in front of where I park (literally the first thing I see when I get home from the work. 'Yes, I love you too Mizuno's'). Not knowing whether they'll be heading inside or out. And that's really the best visualization I can give you of what fall golf is like in Chicago.

Thankfully, I still had the itch and needed a fix. My buddy Jefe loves fall golf, and has had an amazing string of midweek work-related (and not so work-related) golf rounds, so just hearing about them kept the fire stoked. This past Sunday afternoon looked wide open...and we jumped at the opportunity. I managed to get a pretty sweet deal on for Schaumburg Golf Club, a decent park district course that neither Jeff nor I have played (shocking, I know). $40 for 18 holes with cart (normally $67). Too good to pass up for an opportunity to add another one to the list (#268 for me, #310 for Jefe but only his 2nd 'add' of the year. It'll take at 5 years for me to catch him, then he'll probably move to Scottsdale.)

So with zero expectations of doing anything remotely 'blog worthy', we teed it up on Schaumburg's 'Players' nine (they have 27 holes, the Players/Tournament/Baer. We were on Players/Baer combo...and really didn't have any idea if we were getting the full Schaumburg Golf Club experience or if we just paid $40 to play the 'pitch and putt' 18. But the course looked pretty nice, albeit relatively short -- 6,500 yds, par 71 from the tips). Some rounds of golf are about trying to post your best score. Some rounds of golf are about trying to beat your opponent’s (or best friend’s) brains in. Some rounds of golf are about testing your sanity and/or your intestinal fortitude. And some rounds of golf are about just having fun, busting your buddy’s chops and having a few memorable nuggets to take with you amongst the blur of birdies and double bogeys.

And sometimes some of the best memories aren't about shots you hit or scores you posted, but some of the wacky characters you meet along the way. I've seen it all. Grumpy starters? By the thousands. Belligerent old rangers who get on your case for nothing? A seemingly endless supply. Guys who have a comment ready for every single shot, good or bad? Too many times. Ever seen a fat guy chase a bag of chips that had blown out of his golf cart down the fairway? Priceless. Ever seen a guy toss his wedge and putter 100-yards deep into a corn field? Oh wait…that was my buddy Charles. I think I've started more post round re-hashes with my wife with 'We got paired up with this guy who...' than anything else.

I thought I had seen it all on the golf course. And then I met Ashton Wilson.

First off, you have to understand that neither Jefe nor I particularly enjoy being paired up with anybody. It’s not that were anti-social, it’s just that were used to playing a certain way. When you get paired up, it’s a crapshoot. You never know who you’re going to get. Sometimes you get someone who is incredibly slow. Sometimes it's the guy who knows how to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. And sometimes you get someone who’s just altogether clueless. Any one of these can be enough to take you off your game (especially Jefe, who is particularly sensitive in the area. Any one offense and you’re blacklisted for life. I know he’s disowned me as a friend multiple times…which is probably exactly what’s going to happen after he reads that last sentence. Sorry bro), or at a bare minimum make your round at least 0.1% less enjoyable. And sometimes you roll the dice and get someone who’s all of the above…the perfect storm of ineptitude. Enter stage right…Mr. Wilson.

Meet Ashton Wilson. Mid-20’s. Looks like a cross between Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Carson Daly, only dopier (if that’s possible). His cut-off blue shorts fit the mold perfectly.

The 1st hole was wide open a little before our scheduled tee time, so we were itching to go. We had already met our third…Dave. Nice enough guy, extremely loopy golf swing, but no problems with him. I stick my peg in the ground when the starter comes over to the first tee.

Starter: You might as well take your time. Your fourth’s not here yet.
Me: Well, that’s okay. I’m going to take about six off the first tee anyways.
Starter: Well, I tend to discourage that. But do what you want.

So he leaves us alone and I haul off on my opening shot. Hammered. Perfect draw for the sharp dogleg right. Jefe finds the fairway. Dave gets it out there from one set up. We’re about ready to roll when Ashton finally arrives. We do the hardy handshake routine and the tee is all his. I dart over to the putting green to get some last second putts in (didn’t help, I still three putted the first green). But the short putting session turns into about five minutes because Ashton still hasn’t teed off yet. He’s barking something back to the starter. Jefe was right there and he didn’t know what was going on. Very confusing. Finally he hits one down the left rough line and we’re off. An auspicious start.

To top it off, the dude couldn’t find his ball. He was only looking about 100 yards away from his ball really was, eventually he's in the left rough past where my monster drive was. So I head back and find his ball and have to yell to him and Dave in their cart…they are that far away.

So, dude advances the ball another 100 yards and hits his third on the back of the green. I finally get to hit and put mine on the front edge. Jefe mysteriously airmails the green and sees it splash…a water hazard that he didn’t know existed. Fantastic start. Things don’t get better for Jefe’s psyche when he’s getting to ready to chip and Ashton decides to take a practice putt that skirts right past the hole. He walks past the cup right as Jefe’s getting ready to hit. Real nice. Then to top it off…Ashton goes back to his original spot and drains a 50-footer. ‘That was the world’s ugliest par,’ he claims. Jefe has this bewildered look on his face, looking at me like ‘what just happened?’ I’m not 100% sure either, but one thing that I do know is that ‘Ashton Wilson’ just got etched permanently into Jefe’s blacklist.

Then things get more bizarre on the 2nd. Jim, Jeff and Dave hit their drives, then Ashton is up. Only he doesn’t have a club with him. He wants to borrow Dave’s driver. Amazing. He just met this guy 10 minutes ago and he’s asking to use his driver? Not quite ‘Indecent Proposal’, but still pretty darn personal. Too much, too soon. I ask Jefe if he’d offer up his driver if Ash asked him. He says no. Right now, I’m just glad I’m a lefty.

Of course, Ashton pulls his drive wildly to the left and again he’s looking nowhere near where his ball is. Does he even bother to look where it’s headed? I find his ball again, a good 60 yards off from where he’s searching. Then when he finally reaches the green, he’s got a 15-footer for double bogey, and he proceeds to act like it’s the putt to retain the Ryder Cup. He lines it up from both sides. Studies it for a good 3 minutes, then proceeds to leave it 3 feet short. Wounded duck that never had a chance...quite possibly one of the worst putts that I’ve ever seen. If there was some kind of ratio of time spent on a shot over quality of execution, this one would’ve set an all-time low. Maybe if he had taken another practice putt first, I would’ve had the last couple of minutes of my life back.

But wait…things get even more bizarre on the 4th hole, a short par 4. Jefe slings one out there about 280. I take an aggressive line and it’s only about 20 yards short of the green. Ashton borrows Dave’s driver again and yanks it towards the parking lot down the left side. Knowing that I’m going to have to find his ball anyways, I zip down there and locate it. Jefe’s in the middle of the fairway, to the right and behind where Ashton is hitting. And somehow Ashton manages to almost behead Jefe with his approach shot. It just spins straight right and BACKWARDS off the clubface, just missing Jefe and our cart.

Dave misses the green left and again, I locate the lost ball. It leads to this awkward exchange.

Dave: You have great eyes. You really, really have great eyes.
Jim: Uh…Thanks.

By far the nicest thing any man has ever said to me. But enough about that…

So just when you thought it couldn’t get any stranger, Ash drives his cart over to the right side of the rough near the green to hit his next shot…only he’s not hitting yet. He’s busy picking stuff off the ground near the trees. Are those pears??? Yes, they’re pears. Is this a golf course or the produce section of Jewel? Finally, he focuses on the shot at hand, duffs his chip then HITS THE PIN on the next one and it ends up inches from the hole. Almost another improbable par. Jefe slaps his ball back to him, Ashton pulls the cart up, then GOES BACK TO THE PEAR TREE and picks up a couple to take with him. Four off-the-wall moments in four holes. Who is this guy? Batman?

Thankfully, his cart-mate Dave sheds some light:

Dave: This guy is a rock star.
Jim: Yeah…Oh, you mean literally? He’s literally a rock star?
Dave: Yeah, his name’s Ashton Wilson. He’s here because he’s performing somewhere tonight and tomorrow.

Suddenly, everything becomes crystal clear (is there any other kind?)

If there’s one thing I learned from watching the most recent MTV Video Music Awards, it’s that I am completely out of touch with who’s new and hot on the music scene. I hardly recognized any of the nominees (probably the first sign that you’re getting old. The second is if you actually use the term ‘new and hot on the music scene’. It’s kind of like when my mom says, ‘well, that’s what they’re wearing these days’. It doesn’t help that MTV doesn’t actually show videos anymore.) So Ashton Wilson could be the next John Mayer or something and I wouldn’t even know it. Sounds like a plausible name for a rock star (turns out he must be small time…nothing on google. Didn’t stop him from acting like a complete cracked-out adult A.D.D’er.)

The fifth hole borders the other side of parking lot, and Ashton hits a screaming hook that looks like it’s going to do some damage. Even better…Jefe’s company car is parked right where this missile is headed. Unfortunately, a tree is the only thing that keeps an ‘Authentic Ashton Wilson Autographed Shattered Dodge Stratus Windshield’ from showing up on eBay.

After some more hijinks, lost balls and about 10 minutes between when I got to hit my first and second shots, Ashton chips up to the green and his ball stops about a foot from mine. I’m sure he was planning on marking it, but he had to chat up the approaching beverage girl for 5 minutes instead (he didn’t actually buy anything). I guess I could’ve marked it for him, but it was easier (and significantly more satisfying) to knock his ball about 4-5 feet off to the side. At this point, does it really matter? Of course, he was clueless about the whole thing.

Jefe reaches the boiling point by the sixth hole, and a triple-bogey leads to some club-throwing (bonus points for throwing his club over a water hazard!) and steam coming out of his ears. He's homicidal. Dave senses the tension and offers me a chance to split up the group and let us go ahead. There's really nowhere to go, but I don’t want my best friend going to jail (mainly because I’d have no one to play golf with, but also because Jefe wouldn’t last a week in the big house), so I agree and we were off. Auto two-putts on the sixth green and we’re off like a shot (well, not quite. Jefe left his wedges by the green). Liberation!

And that was the Ashton Wilson era. Six holes that will go down in folklore. Things immediately got better for Jefe’s psyche (at least until he 3-putted the 8th green), although it only took a grand total of one hole to catch up to the group ahead of us.

Even without Ash, the rest of the round was still fun and memorable. I managed to hit 7 of 9 greens on the front but had 19 putts and shot 3-over 38. Jefe bounced back and played much better. On the 11th tee which juts out into the large pond, we pulled out a couple junk balls and tried to skip balls across the pond, a la what they do during practice rounds at the 16th at Augusta (a practice which Lee Trevino claims to havce invented, just one of many things Trevino’s claims ownership for. I bet you didn’t know he also invented the modern wooden tee, the concept of par and actually designed the Old Course at St. Andrews, too. One thing for certain is he is the only person I’ve seen that can wear a hat without actually wearing the hat. Have you seen how high on his head he wears that thing? Check him out in Happy Gilmore sometime.) I hit 3-iron and manage to skip it about 10-12 times about 75% across the pond, a good 150 yards at least (the key is to hit off the downslope). Jefe only has driver and hits one off the deck of the tee box but still manages about 8-10 skips. Impressive.

So back to the 11th hole, it’s a 510-yard par 5 that’s playing downwind, so it’s looking like a decent birdie opp. Jefe stripes one down the right side. Looks like go time. I take the aggressive ‘Tiger’ line again, pulling out this high mini-fade (a relatively new weapon in my arsenal) that carries the trees and is ‘long…and strong’, Nothing more than a short iron in (9-iron in fact). Two, dare I say, potential eagles on the same hole? Never been done in our 15-year golf marriage, although we both eagled separate par 4’s in one round about four-five holes apart once.

But it never happened.

Jefe has about 210 to the pin and I have 165, but we have to wait a long time for the green to clear. Meanwhile, the sunshine we had earlier in the round has disappeared, and as we wait it gets progressively darker. First, it starts sprinkling. Then it starts raining. Now, it's pouring. Right as the green finally clears and Jefe gets ready to take a dead aim, a huge bolt of lightning strikes pretty close by (later we find out it struck a tree on the other side of the property!). ‘Let’s get outta here!’ I yell as we pile into the cart, but as we drive up to pick-up my ball, I can't pass up the opportunity to hit it. What if I hole out for double eagle? How often do you get that opportunity with 9-iron in your hands? So I run up and swing practically in one motion. Unfortunately, 9-iron is still too much club (165 yards!), and it carries over the green long and left. No double eagle, no eagle. Just a declaration that ‘I’m taking birdie’ and one lost Pro V1x, and we’re outta there.

So, a pretty anti-climatic finish to an otherwise wacky round. But the good news is when we go into the proshop to see if we could get a raincheck for the back nine, the guy inside stamps our receipt and tells us it was good for a FULL ROUND within 30 days. Boo yaa!

So, we have a 1:20 tee time for this Sunday. Who knows what’s in store. Maybe we’ll meet someone even more over the top than Ashton Wilson. And rest assured that you’ll be the first to hear ‘We got paired up with this guy who…', after my wife of course. And you know I’ll be trying to skip the ball across that pond again.

[Note: the ironic thing is, this story becomes exponentially better if Ashton Wilson ever becomes a multi-platinum rock star. This creates an interesting dichotomy for Jefe, who would otherwise wish nothing put pain and discomfort for Ashton until the end of his days. He was last seen at Hobby Lobby buying the necessary yarn and thread for a makeshift voodoo doll (just like when former PGA Tour player Erik Booker made the mistake of crossing us while we were playing behind him once at World Woods. Never heard of Erik Booker? My point exactly.) But the story reaches ‘ESPN Classic’ status if this rocker ever strikes it big. In either case, Jefe’s brother gets to hear about it for the next 45 years, minimum. Jimbo, I apologize in advance.]


So we made it back to Schaumburg to use our free raincheck round. The only thing better than golf is free golf. We fully expected Ashton to be waiting at the first tee for us, but sadly he must've been tormenting some other group on some other course. However, we did see one familiar face: Dave...the other guy we got paired up with! He was playing in the group behind us.

Instead of Ashton & Dave, this time it was '?' and '?', two older gentlemen from Japan who spoke little to no English (they told us their names on the first tee, but Jefe and I couldn't agree on what their names were. We really had no idea.) As you can imagine, there wasn't a whole lot of conversation going on. Both guys hit it about 130 yards tops...and neither one could find a ball in the rough, which meant Jefe and I would have to serve as forecaddies again. Can I get a tip? Does anyone know how to say 'You have really, really great eyes' in Japanese?

It took me all of one hole to realize that Schaumburg is not my kind of course. Once again, I hammered a draw around the corner. Once again, I hit to the front of the green. And once again, I three-putted. I hate this place. I just can't putt these greens. The only highlight of the day for me was hitting 120 mph for the first time on Jefe's swing-speed monitor before the round.

Fortunately for Jefe, things were much better than last time. He parred the first, stuffed it in on #2 for birdie, bettering his previous score by 2 strokes on each hole. I kept egging Jefe on to play match play, given it was Ryder Cup Sunday, but he wasn't biting. Good thing for me...because he probably would've beaten me 9-and-7, or in other words, almost as bad as the Europeans beat the Americans at the K-Club.

If the Americans had Jefe putting for them, they would've had at least a fighting chance. This dude was rolling it in from everywhere, including a stretch on 9 (tough 45-footer for birdie), 10 (clutch 20-foot par save), and 11 (another 40 footer for birdie FROM THE ROUGH) that will go down in history as the greatest display of putting I've ever seen. Throw in another 15-footer for bird on #15 and the guy was on fire. A 6-footer for par on 18 capped off a career-best 72. Way to go, Jefe! Just goes to show how good he can play when he doesn't have goofy rockstars in his dome.

I feel like I contributed at least a little bit in Jefe's career round. On #13, he missed the green right and we couldn't find the ball anywhere. Of course, our playing partners were on no use. Jefe was about to take a disappointing drop when at the 11th hour I found his ball embedded in the rough. Of course, he managed to get up and down, making a slick 6-footer for the par save. See, golf is a team sport. It led to this exchange:

Jefe: Good eyes on that one. You saved me there.
Jim: You're not the first person to tell me that.

Even without Ashton, his legend lives on. There were little reminders of him throughout the round. As we drove up to the course, the first thing you see is the pond on the 6th where Jefe hit his limit, tossing his PW across the hazard. 'That's where I lost it,' Jefe points out. And when I was playing #4, I hit a pretty good drive that ended up directly underneath Ashton's pear tree (a microcosm of my day in general. Given my poor play, maybe it's true that Jefe can't play with Ashton, and I can't play without him. Heck, I couldn't even skip the ball across the pond very well this time. Ash, are you out there, buddy?).

So, who knows if this is it for 2006. I'd hate to end my season on such a sour note, but you never know with the weather and the progressively shorter (and increasingly depressing) days. After my recent 72's at Prairie Landing and the Irish Course, and Jefe's 72 here, we both agree that we should be playing this well a lot more often. But we might not be able to find out until 2007. Either way, I'll let you know. Stay tuned.


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